Last week the world of American Muslim social media (if there is such a thing) was rocked by an unexpected victory. A proposed ABCFamily show provocatively entitled Alice in Arabia was cancelled after a protest by American Muslims. The reason: this tale of an American girl kidnapped by Saudi relatives and held, veiled against her will in Saudi Arabia was all too familiar as stereotypical orientalism. The question then becomes, with films and television shows preceding it rife with the racist prejudices of our American consciousness, why was Alice in Arabia different?
Last week the U.S. District Court dismissed a long-standing case against the NYPD for their secret surveillance of Muslims in New York and New Jersey in the years after 9/11. Yet few Americans outside of the American Muslim community spoke out against the judgment, and not all newspapers carried the news. For the average American of a different faith, this wasn’t really too newsworthy. Here’s why they are wrong.
A brand new year, another February drawing to a close. We all know this month is Black History Month, and the overall impression I’ve got from people who are not black is that nobody truly cares about black history except for African Americans. Granted, PBS airs some specials, and our kids learn about important African American figures in school, mostly the high-profile ones such as Dr. King, Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks and a few other prominent black activists. for the average American, that’s the extent of our understanding of or participation in Black History Month. Other than that, we defer to the African American community and allow them to claim this “celebration” as their own.
Courtesy World Hijab Day
Stereotypes are hurtful, no doubt about it. They assume things about an entire group of people by those who have less than an iota of knowledge about the group. It shrinks each individual in the group to the lowest common denominator, or even to something unrelated entirely to the group. And it’s doubly sad when stereotypes are perpetuated not just externally but internally as well.
Today, perhaps no other group faces more stereotypes than the Muslim woman. The adjectives – I call them labels – used to define her range from the inaccurate to the offensive and even sometimes laughable. Submissive. Oppressed. Quiet. Homemaker. Religious. Devout. Covered.
What is a hero? In our violence-ready culture, a hero can mean many things. Fire fighters, soldiers, teachers, even volunteers – all have been called heroes many a time, and with full confidence. Wherever there’s tragedy, there are always heroes. We applaud them, pray for them, give them the best of wishes and accolades. When a hero loses his or her life saving someone, we feel their family’s pain, shed tears for them, wish there had been another way. But last week in Pakistan, a young hero – a child himself – gave up his life in a manner that made his family and his nation proud.
This year will be the first time my family officially participates in the tradition of Thanksgiving, despite having lived in the United States for the last 15 years. That’s not to say I’m against American holidays, but being an American Muslim often implies conflict in terms of national and international observances. So while other immigrants are quick to participate in the celebrations of their adopted countries, American Muslims like me, who identify strongly with their religion, find it difficult to tread this path lightly. Here’s why.
Amidst news of violence, kidnappings, imprisonments and much more, the world quietly celebrated International Religious Freedom Day on October 27. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry released a statement to mark this important ideal of the American consciousness with words that sounded well-intentioned and carefully thought out. He mentioned the experiences of the first pilgrims who established colonies in what was later to become the United States of America due to a desire for religious liberty and discussed the role this nation has played up till today in offering a refuge to all peoples facing persecution for their faith.
Danish philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard famously said, “Once you label me you negate me.” But despite this, it seems that as human beings, we love labels. We spend much of our lives labeling not just others but ourselves as well. Skin color, race, education level, professional qualifications… you name it, we’ve got it and using it with gusto. Some labels – like doctor, author, white person – we apply on ourselves with pride, while others – black, dropout, druggie – are pasted on our psyches by others without our consent. It’s also an undeniable fact that labels, positive and negative, lead to stereotypes more frequently than they lead to motivation or greater self-esteem. Yet we continue to label ourselves and others without regard for consequences. A particularly dangerous label in the current national political and cultural situation is religion. As a culture we have started looking at people through “God glasses” – asking people what they believe in, assuming their religious preference based on their accent, color and most importantly their dress. It’s no longer a private matter, and it almost always results in discrimination.
Religious accommodation in the workplace seems to be gaining strength in recent times. Last month, corporate America received a huge setback as retail giant Abercrombie and Fitch was found by a federal judge to have discriminated against a Muslim clerk who wore a hijab to work and was subsequently fired. While that story took the nation, especially American Muslim circles by storm, I refrained from writing about it for the simple reason that there didn’t seem much else to say. A court of law of the United States had already given a powerful message that American Muslims, with our infinite rituals and practices, were part of the fabric of American life and deserved equal treatment under the law. What more could anyone add? Yet here I am less than a month later, writing about this landmark case, not to state the obvious but because it seems that this case may have set some sort of precedent for religious accommodation.
Actions speak louder than words. It’s a litany spoken by teachers to students, parents to children, wives to husbands (and sometimes vice versa) thousands of times around the world each day in tens of different languages. It echoes in my mind from my own childhood, and although it irritated me beyond belief as a child, I have often found myself repeating the very thing to my own little ones. “Saying sorry after hitting your sister is all very good, but actions speak louder than words” or “You may say you love your mom, but when’s the last time you helped me out around the house?” Sound familiar? Because despite the fact that this little sentence is so clichéd it ought to be outlawed, it also happens to be the essence of human nature.
In a world reverberating with a cacophony of statements, actions reflect our state of mind more than anything that comes out of our mouths. Whatever we believe, whatever we want outsiders to believe about our group, is completely dependent on how we behave. Unfortunately these five little words that are so easily understood by the youngest of minds are often the most misapplied and ignored by adults. And it is these very words that have been playing over and over in my mind today, the twelfth anniversary of 9/11, when monsters pretending to be my brothers in faith declared a holy war against my home and killed almost 3,000 innocent of my fellow countrymen and women in one terrifying swoop. Certainly their actions were taken by the entire country as a sign that Islam is a violent, bloodthirsty religion, wanting nothing more than to force the West to its knees through murder and mayhem. Ordinary Muslims such as I were aghast that such terrible actions could hold more weight than the statements of millions of Muslims in the United States and abroad who vehemently denounced them individually and collectively. But that’s human nature, isn’t it, that actions speak more clearly and resound louder than mere words do?